Houdini and Exodus: Reflections on the Deceptive Triangle of Knowledge, Power, and Truth
The Jewish Museum in NYC is the first major art museum to examine Harry Houdini’s life and his enduring influence on art and culture.1 The exhibit left me thinking about how Houdini’s life and legacy dramatize central Jewish concerns.
Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss in 1874 to an immigrant Hungarian rabbi and his wife, was a consummate performer whose feats of escapology challenged assumptions about human limitations. Drowning, freezing, burial, hanging, suffocation, and bondage were some of the mortal extremes he survived with great showmanship. Houdini’s sensationalist career acts out a persistent tension within Judaism: What are the powers ascribed to God, and what are those that lie within the human province?
Houdini’s stance, much as the Book of Exodus, draws its own line on the often-blurred boundary between the two.
It is understandable that many in Houdini’s thrall insisted that this unusually daring and provocative escape artist had superhuman powers. It is somewhat more surprising that Houdini went out of his way to vehemently disavow, rather than exploit, that belief. In this way, Houdini takes a position on a central concern of the Book of Exodus—the origins of sacred power and its often explosive relationship with the effects of so-called magic.
The implicit partnership—and frequently explosive rivalry—of magic and religion is a millenniums-old story. Religious leaders often depend on some form of magic to establish their spiritual authority. Once established, religious authority has frequently clamped down hard on magic, lest its practitioners use their arts to willfully subvert their cherished truth.
Like all religions, Judaism has played upon the uneasy alliance of magic and religion. In Exodus we read of Yahweh’s bid for supremacy over the Egyptian gods which Moses and Aaron must prove to the ruling Pharaoh and his court. Pharaoh’s elite corps of conjurers can turn rods into snakes, prompting Moses and Aaron to demonstrate that they can do the same. But their claim to represent an omnipotent God calls for trumping the court magicians at their own game. By having one of their snakes devour all of the Egyptians’ serpents, Moses and Aaron dazzle the competition and assert Yahweh as supreme.
There are other ways to look at this story. An honest practicing magician would point to the Hebrews’ superior knowledge of animal behavior: Surely they were first to discover an obscure genus of desert snake that naturally devours those of another genus. An Orthodox reader would explain that God temporarily allowed Moses and Aaron to embody divine prowess in order to demonstrate the hegemony of the true God. But we are never to believe that Moses or Aaron (or any of our religious leaders) themselves have superhuman powers.
In her musical play “Houdini,”2 the great feminist poet and leftist activist Muriel Rukeyser records a statement Houdini once made when questioned about the origins of what others perceived as his “mystical powers.” Her Houdini character explains: “My father said we’re not to be magicians because of what Moses did. … And God told Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Water gushed forth. Moses let them believe it was all his doing; he did not give credit. That’s why he wasn’t allowed to go into the Promised Land. And we’re not to be magicians.” Later on, Rukeyser quotes Houdini as saying, “If you dig deeply you can find the answers in ancient science. Ultimately however, it is only God.”
Bizarrely enough, Houdini ran into considerable trouble for his insistence upon the distinction between the magician (one who claims to wield mystical power over nature) and the illusionist (one who knows secret techniques to effect the illusion of having such powers). In 1926 there was a congressional investigation into the highly questionable activities of the so-called Spiritualists who flourished between the great wars. These self-appointed mediums appropriated tricks proper to stage magic (levitating tables, simulation of spooky voices, conjuring ghostly apparitions) while shamelessly claiming to put the war-bereaved in touch with departed spirits and charging hefty fees for their rigged theatrics.Houdini, who tirelessly explained that he was an illusionist and not a magician, was zealous about unmasking these tricks, making him as a star witness in the government’s inquiry.
The actual transcript from the 1926 congressional investigation veers off into the surreal. Houdini is badgered by one congressman into confessing that he has all manner of “powers greater than human.” Another insists that Houdini admit he has the actual power to “fly through keyholes.” Houdini tries to explain that he has professional secrets that, if divulged, would reveal cause and effect techniques that allow him to sustain his illusion of “mystical power.”
Undeniably, Houdini had extraordinary physical prowess as well as a great deal of secret and specialized knowledge—how to pick intricate locks, how to hold his breath for extended periods, how to quickly undo a straitjacket, even how to make an elephant appear to disappear. And this knowledge, along with his physical mastery, certainly gave him powers beyond the ordinary. The actual debate—never quite clarified in the emotional din on Capitol Hill—was about the source of his powers. Houdini says of himself, “I am a psychic investigator, and I perform stage illusions. I admit only that I am human.” It was vital to him that people not confuse his years of arduous training with his having been granted superhuman powers. These he adamantly insisted were proper only to God.
Exasperated by Houdini’s insistence that “everything was done by ordinary means,” one congressman finally explodes, “It’s all a plot of the Jews!” followed by a meaningful silence. Houdini the escape artist finds himself a target of a dangerously ambiguous accusation, one that has cost the chosen people dearly throughout their history. We are here confronted with the inescapably tricky triangle of knowledge, power, and truth. A “chosen” nation’s claim to knowledge and even to sacred truth leads others to conclude they must also have power, even if history has shown these same people to be overwhelmingly powerless in the face of real threat. (I can remember while traveling in a European train in the late eighties being cajoled by a sober and educated German to finally reveal “the secret power of the Jews” and how I hugged my little son closer to me in a protective embrace.)
In his own way, Houdini was an agent provocateur. Houdini’s amazing prowess and ethnic origins inevitably stirred up old suspicions of secret Jewish powers. A man of self-styled integrity, he then used his celebrity to put old misconceptions about Jews to rest. Tragically the rest of 20th-century history testifies that in this one great challenge, the master showman did not succeed.
Finally, flummoxed, members of Congress accuse their superstar witness of being “against religion,” a charge he passionately denies. “True belief is a great thing, I care about that.” Accused of debunking religion, Houdini could have passed himself off as an unconcerned secularist. But this was not Houdini’s stance. In Rukeyser’s play, as in real life, Houdini says, “I have always wanted to believe. It would have meant life to me.” In this, his perpetually unsatisfied longing to believe, Houdini is the essential Jew. Alas, when he died that same year, he was still tormented with spiritual doubts.
The Jewish people emerging from slavery were faced with a similar challenge to believe. They are given all sorts of “wonders and signs” to bolster them in their fledging faith: the Nile turning to blood, the proliferation of locusts, the smiting of the first-born, and the parting of the Red Sea. Still the Jewish people are never unwavering in their faith. How much more difficult faith had to have been for a man like Houdini, who, unlike most of us, was initiated into the magicians how-to manuals with their step-by-step instructions for effecting even such outsized Exodus-scale miracles. His was a need to challenge complacency, overturn facile assumptions, probe deeper, go further out on the edge, and keep searching. His obsessive quest was, in many ways, the search of his own people and that of the everyman and everywoman everywhere who adored him.